8 Weeks of Celebration Cheeses: Week 1

Since I spent most of this year being a new homeowner and opening a new store/not publishing blog posts, missing out on all of the fun holidays and special opportunities for cheese-eating during the year, I decided to go big (OK, but not too big) for the winter holiday season. From Thanksgiving planning through Christmas to New Years, I’ll devote one post a week to a cheese that could be considered “a holiday cheese.”

While I will always advocate that cheese is not just for holidays and special occasions, it’s fair to say that some cheeses—either due to their seasonality, their lack of availability or affordability, or what have you—are celebration cheeses.

Whether your are looking to brighten up the dark days of late autumn and early winter, or you want to find that special star for holiday special events, these cheeses will give you a pretty good jumping off point. Look for them online at the end of each week.

And so, without further ado, I give you the inaugural 2018 Holiday Cheese: (*drumroll, please*) Rogue River Blue.

Crafted along the banks of the Rogue River in Central Point, Oregon, Rogue River Blue is one of nine blue cheeses made by Rogue Creamery.

So just what makes this one so special?

Like the other eight, the certified organic cheese is made with milk from the creamery’s own dairy cows. Also like the others, the cheese is molded into wheels, dry-salted by hand, and pierced with needles to allow air into the wheel so that the penicillium roqueforti blue mold begins to create marbled veins throughout the cheese’s ivory paste.

But Rogue River Blue is then wrapped in grape leaves that have been macerated in pear brandy.[1] Each wheel is tied up in string like a little present, aged for 12 to 18 months, and then released to the world just in time to make it onto everyone’s holiday table.

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This cheese is not cheap. I’ve seen it sold for anywhere between $39.99 and $49.99 per pound.

That said, you don’t need gobs of this cheese to enjoy it. Unless you’re serving 100 people, you’re not going to need a whole pound of this cheese. So it’s probably unlikely you’ll be spending more than $10 or $15 for the wedge you take home for a family meal, party with friends, or work gathering.

What makes this cheese so expensive (and at the same time so special)? There are a few reasons, and they are all cause for celebration in and of themselves.

First, the cows eat certified organic grass while they live on pasture in Grants Pass, Oregon, for about 10 months of the year. During the rainy months when pasturing is unsustainable in the Pacific Northwest, the cows’ diet comes from non-GMO feed.

The cows are milked robotically whenever they feel like being milked (typically two to three times each day), and they also have a cow spa where they can go to have their backs scratched and brushed whenever they want.

The milk is made into cheese in a creamery that has been in operation since the 1930s. (The creamery, which was founded by Tom Vella of the legendary California cheesemaking family, was purchased in 2002 by David Gremmels and Cary Bryant.)

It’s worth noting that the cheese was originally made with raw milk—and was the first raw-milk cheese from the US to be exported to Europe—however it has been made with pasteurized milk since the creamery’s transition to making certified organic cheeses. The creamery’s website says that the milk is heated to about 100 degrees (roughly thermized),[2] but the cheese’s own label states that the milk is pasteurized.

The milk is made into cheese through a process that retains the raw material’s organic certification, and the leaves in which the cheese is wrapped are biodynamically grown Syrah leaves. At every step of the way, the cheese is crafted with care—both in the thought given to the sustainability of the cheesemaking process (Rogue Creamery was Oregon’s first certified B Corp business, after all) and in the thought given to crafting an exquisite cheese.

IMG_20180928_160501Taking a bite out of Rogue River Blue is a celebration of all of those things, and of the seasonality it is given by its annual release date in autumn.

According to creamery president Gremmels, the flavor of the cheese is granted by the flora of the 30-year-old cheese caves in which it is aged: “cured bacon, milk chocolate, vanilla, and truffles all at the same time.”[3]

The Oxford Companion to Cheese notes that Rogue River Blue’s complex flavor profile and development make it impossible for someone to have the exact same experience with this cheese more than once.[4]

In fact, when I tried Rogue River Blue for the first time in 2016, I hated it. I have never been a fan of fruity blues, and I found it to be very fruity that winter. This year, when our first wheels of the season came in at the end of September, I loved what I tasted.

The butter-yellow paste, which tends to have a pinkish hue around the rind from the eau de vie in which the grape leaves are soaked, had a salty, faintly musty scent. The flavor was fruity at first, but then salty, spicy, peppery, with notes of warm milk. If I had to give the entire flavor a description, I would say it tasted “warm,” if you imagine what that tastes like–and not just because I could really taste the pear brandy.

The mouthfeel was fluffy but smooth, supple, with a  slightly grainy finish, and overall absolutely divine. I immediately wanted to pair it with a warm sweet bread or something textural like Challah.

It was not, in any way, an overpowering cheese. It did not taste “overly blue,” and it did not hit me in the face with fruitiness. I believe you could safely serve this at a holiday gathering and win the hearts and tongues of people who profess to be fans neither of blue nor of “fruity” cheeses.

This year’s Rogue River Blue is simply decadent, totally delightful, and must find its way into your mouth this holiday season.

Oh–and if you’re wondering, you don’t have to eat the grape leaves on the outside; you can remove them before taking a bite. I personally like to the try the leaves with the cheese from time to time. Just think of it kind of like a cheese dolma.

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[1] Young, Emma. “Rogue River Blue.” The Oxford Companion to Cheese. Ed. Catherine Donnelly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 624-5.

[2] “Cheese Making.” Rogue Creamery. http://www.roguecreamery.com/store/content/70/Cheese-Making/. Accessed 5 Nov. 2018.

[3] Gremmels, David. “How I Accidentally Became an Award-Winning Cheesemaker.” Munchies. As told to Javier Cabral. Vice.com, 11 Jan. 2017. https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/jpk88k/how-i-accidentally-became-an-award-winning-cheesemaker. Accessed 5 Nov. 2018.

[4] Young, 625.

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